Singing from the same song-sheet: National's "Broad Church" made perfect sense in the FPP era of two-party politics. But does the union of liberal city-dwellers and conservative country-folk continue to make sense in the age of MMP - especially if (as seems likely) Act's crucial votes are removed from the Right's electoral equation?
A "LOYA JIRGA": that’s what John Key and the National Party need; a Loya Jirga of the Right.
In moments of crisis, when important decisions need to be made, the tribal chieftains and village head-men of the Pashtun people emerge from their mountain fastnesses in Afghanistan and Pakistan to deliberate together in a "Loya" (Great or Grand) "Jirga" (Council).
The head-men and tribal chieftains of liberal and conservative New Zealand could do a lot worse than follow the Pashtun example. Because, whether the Prime Minister cares to admit it or not, the implosion of the Act Party poses a huge risk to the future of the National Party-led Government.
If (as seems likely) the Act Party is driven from the House of Representatives at next year’s election, the odds against Mr Key being able to preserve a credible and stable administration are formidable. Though National may well receive the largest number of votes in 2011, assembling a parliamentary majority will be extremely difficult without Act’s five seats.
Nor should Mr Key rely upon the Maori Party riding to his rescue. By this time next year there’s a good chance the public face of the Maori Party will have changed dramatically.
Act isn’t the only National ally experiencing difficulties at the moment. Grass-roots dissatisfaction with the Maori Party’s current leadership has risen sharply in response to the perceived shortcomings of the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill. As the 2011 election draws near, Mr Key may see his good friend, Dr Pita Sharples, replaced by someone much less at ease in the Centre-Right tent.
One presumes the National Party’s strategists understand that their Maori Party allies have no enduring loyalty to voters registered on the General Roll. Secure in their Maori Roll redoubt, they enjoy the extraordinary privilege of being able to abandon old allies with impunity.
If the Maori Party concludes that it’s got just about everything it’s going to get out of the 2008 deal with National, there are no serious electoral impediments to it broaching a new deal with Labour in 2011.
A Loya Jirga of the Right could address these looming problems holistically. In much the same way as the chiefs and head-men of the shattered liberal and conservative movement came together in 1936 to reassemble their scattered forces and forge a political weapon equal to the challenge laid down by a triumphant Left.
The National Party represented the Right’s long-delayed adjustment to the new reality of two-party politics.
From the formation of the Labour Party in 1916, until its eventual triumph in 1935, the New Zealand political landscape had been dominated by three major parties. Indeed, that twenty year period may be looked upon as one in which the Right struggled to come to terms with the brute electoral reality that two parties of the Right were one party too many.
Under our present electoral system (and with no real prospect of a return to FFP) the Right faces precisely the opposite dilemma. Rather than too many large parties on the right of the political spectrum, there are too few – and they’re the wrong sort.
The natural division of right-wing labour in this country (like Australia) is between the conservative inhabitants of rural and provincial New Zealand, and the liberal citizens of its major cities. The merging of their respective standard-bearers, the Reform and United parties, to defeat the socialists, made perfect sense ..... in 1936. In a country almost certain to retain some form of proportional representation, their continued forced cohabitation under a single roof makes no sense at all.
The current National-Act configuration is similarly nonsensical. Essentially a neoliberal/libertarian party, Act’s natural constituency is among the economically-dry but socially-wet sophisticates of Auckland and Wellington. But, since these voters are already securely enrolled in either National’s or Labour’s ranks, Act has been forced to seek support from whoever would give it – which turned out to be Far-Right provincial populists. Not surprisingly, it’s been an extremely uncomfortable fit.
At the "Grand Council" which the Right really should convene (and soon) two new parties: one for provincial conservatives; one for urban liberals; should be assembled from the current memberships of National, Act, United Future and NZ First.
I’ll leave the two new parties’ names, logos and credos to Crosby-Textor, but my picks for their respective presidents would be Garth McVicar and Deborah Coddington.
This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 24 September 2010.